Blog: Staff Reflections
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March 13, 2019
By Susan Farbstein
We’re thrilled to share this happy news: in honor of International Women’s Day 2019, the Clinic’s very own Yee Htun has been selected by the Harvard Women’s Law Association as a “Women Inspiring Change.” To say this honor is well deserved would be an understatement.
Since joining the Clinic in 2016, Yee has guided teams of students as they engage with some of the gravest and most pressing human rights issues facing her native Myanmar: ending violence against women and girls, decriminalizing sodomy laws and enshrining LGBTQI rights, repealing or revising laws that encroach on freedom of expression, documenting hate speech and designing strategies to promote tolerance, spearheading coordination between local and international organizations seeking accountability for atrocities, and improving land rights for the rural poor.
Yee’s personal story is also inspiring. Yee fled Myanmar as a young child in the late 1980s, following the military junta’s crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. After five years in a Thai refugee camp with her mother and sisters, the family emigrated to Canada as government-sponsored refugees. Yee would go on to earn a J.D. specialized in international law, to be selected by the Nobel Women’s Initiative to lead the first-ever international campaign to stop rape and sexual violence in conflict, and to serve as the inaugural director of the Myanmar Program at Justice Trust.
But Yee’s dazzling resume, strategic judgment, and legal accomplishments pale in comparison to who she is as a person. She earns your respect and admiration without an ounce of ego. Students are in awe of Yee without being intimidated by her. She’s a hug and a shot of adrenaline, all rolled into one.
My co-director, Tyler Giannini, echoes this sentiment: “There are people who just naturally connect with others and inspire them to action—Yee is one of them. She has a tremendous ability to bring people together, which is so critical in a place like Myanmar where the military has tried to divide people for so long. She leads with her energy, which is contagious. And she leads with her commitment to justice, which is unwavering.”
I have watched, again and again, as clinical teams working with Yee are transformed by the experience—discovering not just their passion for human rights but also the confidence to act, speak, and lead in ways that they might never have imagined without her support and mentorship.
So it comes as no surprise that Yee’s students nominated her for this recognition, singling out her “courage, empathy, and tenacity” as particularly inspiring. Describing a recent trip to Myanmar, the students emphasized her incomparable “optimism and relentless advocacy” as she balanced strategizing with local partners, drafting human rights reports, and leading workshops, all while mentoring and training them.
I first met Yee at a staff meeting when I returned from a semester of leave and was immediately drawn in by her confidence, sincerity, and good humor. As she discussed the work that she and her students had undertaken that term, I was overwhelmed by how much she had accomplished, and energized by her warmth and enthusiasm. I still feel that way every time we speak—impressed, inspired, and invigorated.
Yee, thank you for giving so much of yourself to your students and your work. Thank you for being not only a generous colleague, but also a friend and a true role model. Thank you for motivating us all to rise to your level.
March 4, 2019
Advice for Prospective Post-Graduate Fellows From IHRC Senior Clinical Fellow Nicolette Waldman JD’13
International Human Rights Clinic Senior Clinical Fellow Nicolette Waldman JD’13 recently shared some advice for prospective post-graduate fellows, including tips for preparing your application and lessons learned for how to make the most of your year abroad. As a Satter Fellow in Human Rights in 2013-2014, Nicolette worked as a field researcher with Center for Civilians in Conflict in Somalia, the Philippines, and Syria, focusing on civilian experiences in armed conflict. In the video below, Nicolette also traces her career trajectory back to this fellowship, as it gave her the field experience and independence required for her later work with Amnesty International and others.
For more on how to apply to post, visit our fellowships page. For the 2019-2020 cycle, applications for the Henigson and Satter Fellowships will only be accepted online (through one portal). Applications are due March 15, 2019 and prospective applicants should meet with an advisor before applying.
January 30, 2019
On Jan. 11-12, dozens of experts convened at Harvard Law School to provide commentary on draft articles for a future convention on the prevention and punishment of crimes against humanity. In a post for the Harvard International Law Journal blog, Gerald Neuman, HRP Co-Director and J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, explained the importance of establishing more clarity on the definition of “crimes against humanity” following the Rome Statute.
“A key issue in establishing state obligations to prosecute international crimes involves the choice of a definition that is appropriate to the obligations that are being imposed,” Neuman says. “The notion of ‘crimes against humanity’ has a long history, but its definition has evolved over the years. The definition negotiated for the Rome Statute, which created the ICC—an international tribunal with a limited capacity to prosecute and adjudicate—may not provide the right definition for an obligatory system of consistent national prosecution.”
Establishing a convention on crimes against humanity would give clarity to states’ obligations to enforce the prohibition against crimes against humanity, among other benefits. Read the full post on the International Law Journal website.
The Crimes Against Humanity workshop was organized by the Human Rights Program and led by Professor Neuman and Sean Murphy, Manatt/Ahn Professor of International Law at The George Washington University School of Law and Special Rapporteur for Crimes Against Humanity at the International Law Commission.
Professor Murphy will visit the Human Rights Program on April 4th for a public talk about the draft articles. Stay tuned to our events page for more.
December 20, 2018
We are pleased to present HRP’s 2017-2018 Annual Report. The report showcases the global reach and impact of the Human Rights Program in its 34th year, featuring work on populism, armed conflict, and accountability litigation. It spotlights fieldwork undertaken by students and alumni, and details pedagogical innovations and new research.
We thank all of the students, partners, and alumni who made the year so strong.
Click below to open the Annual Report as a flipbook or download the PDF.
December 10, 2018
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a groundbreaking document that established the modern foundation of today’s human rights movement. As we reflect on the movement’s achievements over the last seven decades, we can see the lasting impact of the declaration across laws, theory, and practice, including here at Harvard Law School through the Human Rights Program. Our Program, which is entering its 35th year, commemorates and celebrates the Universal Declaration, and now more than ever, re-affirms its ongoing importance to equality and justice for all people.
November 13, 2018
Posted by Thomas Becker
On October 12th, students from the International Human Rights Clinic arrived at the Villa Ingenio Cemetery on the outskirts of El Alto, Bolivia to celebrate the lives of those killed in Bolivia’s “Black October.” Despite the somberness of the drizzly afternoon, the cemetery was adorned with the bright colors of the family members’ aguayos (blankets) and polleras (traditional billowy skirts worn by Bolivia’s Aymara women). Today was a special occasion.
Téofilo Baltazar was one of the family members present at the cemetery. Fifteen years ago to the day, Bolivian soldiers shot and killed his pregnant wife Teodosia while she was praying inside her sister’s home. As Téofilo placed flowers on his wife’s tomb, he stated, “Hasta el último momento lucharé por la justicia.” (“Until the last moment, I will fight for justice.”)
Téofilo, like so many relatives of the roughly 500 casualties during Black October, is Aymara. Historically, the country’s indigenous people have been excluded from justice, but Téofilo and his friends were determined to change this.
In 2007, nine Aymara Bolivians launched a landmark lawsuit in U.S. federal court against Bolivia’s ex-President Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada and ex-Defense Minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, who fled to the United States after Black October and have lived here ever since. The case sought to hold both men responsible for the role they played planning and organizing the mass killings that took their family members.
After years of legal obstacles, the lawsuit went to trial in March of this year, marking the first time ever a former of head state was forced to directly face his accusers in a U.S. courtroom. The victims’ family members made history when, after a three-week trial and a week of deliberations, the ten-person jury unanimously held Goni and Sánchez Berzaín liable for the killings and awarded the plaintiffs $10 million. This was the first human rights verdict in the United States against a living head of state.
Unfortunately, in May, a judge overturned the historic jury decision. The judge upheld the defendants’ Rule 50 Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, which argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict. This decision forced the families back to court.
Last month, as Bolivians celebrated the lives of those killed in Black October, the plaintiffs submitted an appellate brief to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit arguing that the district court applied the wrong legal standard for extrajudicial killings and the jury verdict should be reinstated. Additionally, current and former U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, retired U.S. military commanders, and law of war scholars submitted amicus briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs. Early next year, the Defendants will file their opposition brief and Plaintiffs will file their reply; oral argument is expected in spring 2019.
Though the struggle has been long, the families remain steadfast in their fight for justice. It is the memories of their loves ones that keep them going. At the cemetery, Téofilo shared with the Clinic’s students the importance of their victory and its significance for survivors throughout the world. “The jury is the voice of the American people, and the people have spoken. No court can change that. No court can change the message it sends to the world,” he told the students, adding: “But the struggle continues.”
The Clinic and co-counsel from Center for Constitutional Rights, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, LLP, and Schonbrun, De Simone, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman, LLP have represented the plaintiffs from the outset in the case. Clinical students Luna Borges Pereira Santos LLM ’19 and Kevin Patumwat JD ’19 traveled with clinical instructor Thomas Becker JD ’08 to Bolivia in October to commemorate 15 years since Black October.
October 26, 2018
We are sad to share the news that James Tamboer, one of the clinic’s clients in the apartheid litigation, passed away this week. Here, several of the attorneys who worked with James on the case, reflect on his life and this loss.
From Judith Chomsky:
James Tamboer critically set the stage for my understanding of the workers’ struggle against apartheid. Like others who came forward in the struggle against apartheid, his courage and steadfast commitment inspired both his comrades and those of us who came to know him working on the apartheid case in U.S. courts. Meeting and learning from James has given meaning to our work and pride in our association with him.
From Susan Farbstein:
James Tamboer died this week, and I don’t have words to adequately describe the loss. How do I explain my love and respect for a man who started out as a client but became a friend, an inspiration, and the source of so much wisdom and kindness. How do I describe my grief that another member of this generation of South Africans—a generation that struggled and fought and persevered and survived—has died, and that with his death we lose another piece of history and another connection to that past.
Representing James was one of the greatest honors of my life. For nearly a decade, we worked together on a case which sought to hold multi-national corporations accountable for their role in supporting and assisting the apartheid government to commit gross human rights violations. James, who was born in 1959, worked at the General Motors plant in Port Elizabeth from 1977 until 1986. As he said, “I started as a laborer and ended as a laborer.” He worked the trim line, fitting together truck parts, including chassis for military vehicles.
Before joining GM James had been politically active in the student movement, although he had never been arrested. He continued his organizing efforts with the union at GM, first as a shop steward and later as a senior shop steward. James worked not only for pay increases but also to break down racial barriers, such as separate toilets and canteens, within the plant.
He paid heavily for this involvement. He recalled 1982 being one of the worst years for him, a year in which he was arrested on a regular basis—including being taken from the GM plant—because he was a vocal and visible union leader. Security branch personnel often came into the plant, and to his mother’s home, to question James about plans for strikes or other political activities.
During intense union negotiations that year, James was detained for three weeks at St. Alban’s, a notorious prison facility where hundreds were often held without charge and subjected to police abuse. He was tortured. He described being beaten over a bench and waterboarded as the security police attempted to extract information from him about the union’s plans.
James was held again for several months in 1985-86, swept up following the government’s declaration of a state of emergency. The security forces, interrogating James about his role organizing a major strike at GM, stomped on his legs and chest. They bashed his head into the walls so forcefully that he would suffer from memory loss and epilepsy for the rest of his life.
But James was so much more than an activist and survivor. He was a husband, a father, and a pastor. He hesitated before joining the apartheid litigation as a plaintiff. He was concerned that if his children knew more about the abuse that he had suffered, they might hate the white people who had mistreated him. And he had spent his life working against hatred, and for equality and reconciliation.
Ultimately he joined the case because he wanted stories like his to be heard and because he hoped for some measure of justice and accountability, or at least acknowledgement, by GM and the other corporations. He was clear-eyed about the immense legal hurdles that we would face, but he believed in the importance of the case.
When I think of James now, my strongest memories are of him laughing—deep and loud and heartily, with his whole body—and of the way that he would lean in close, look you right in the eye, and wag his finger a bit when making an important point. I remember speaking with him after we had suffered a major setback in the case. I was apologetic and also, I’m sure, quite upset. As was his way, James offered reassurance and perspective: “We always knew this would be hard. And we have suffered so much worse.” Of course.
James, I will miss you tremendously. I will be forever grateful for the privilege of working with you and learning from you. And I will honor your memory, in my own small way, by carrying your wisdom and passion for justice with me, and by sharing it with others.
From Tyler Giannini:
When Diana Tamboer emailed me on Monday that her husband, James, had passed that morning, I was physically shaken. Sitting with it, I went to a moment etched in my mind forever; I can see James’ face – it was a conversation that he and I had at a fast-food restaurant near his house. We settled in a corner booth away from others. We sat across from each other, the Formica table top between us, and we talked. We had spoken before about his experiences – the torture at the hands of the Special Branch, the struggles to fight against apartheid. But this conversation was about whether he would be a plaintiff and a class representative in the apartheid litigation pending in New York.
I explained how much of a long shot the litigation was going to be; how many years it would take; how hard it would be; how he would have to talk about experiences that are hard to relive.
He was unphased. James simply said that he lived under apartheid and he knew all too well about the law, about the way legal systems do not lead to justice. He had no illusions about where this might go, and yet he was fully on board for the years of struggle that were ahead.
And then he said to me he wanted to do this because he had never told his children what had happened to him. He wanted them to know – not just so that they would know, but because he wanted to break the cycle of violence and hatred that defined apartheid.
No more needs to be said about James. I will miss him. And I will forever remember him and his strength, his wisdom, and his humanity.
July 3, 2018
Posted by Dana Walters
Debbie Frempong’s time at the International Human Rights Clinic was short – she was here for just 10 months – but during that time she made her mark on the Clinic through her kindness, empathy, and humor.
Debbie, the Clinic assistant, and I, the Program assistant, started our positions at the Law School just a week apart from each other. Throughout her time here, our desks faced one another, and I always knew I could peek over my computer and see her there. We shared laughter with each other just as often as we shared work. I’ll miss her, as we all will, but I’m excited to see what she does next.
Having joined us from the Harvard Divinity School where she received a Masters in Religion, Politics, and Ethics, Debbie is departing the Clinic to further her graduate work at Brown University. There, she’s pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology, specifically researching identity formation among Ghanaian Christian women using postcolonial theory and a transnational racialized framework. There’s no doubt that Debbie’s work will be invaluable to the field, but more so, she’ll be an asset to any future students she encounters in what will be a remarkable academic career. As a critical and passionate thinker, she’s the kind of teacher we’d all be lucky to have.
At the Clinic, Debbie was the sounding board for so many student concerns. She always treated students and visitors with compassion and respect, even when she was knee-deep in organizing classes, events, and conferences. She cared deeply about social justice: an important factor in all of the Clinic’s hiring decisions. At work and outside of it, she was a natural community builder. Having grown up in Ghana and come to the U.S. for school, she volunteered her spare time with an organization that made sure other African expats and immigrants felt welcome in the Boston area.
A few months into her tenure, we discovered something else about Debbie: she’s a virtuoso singer. As her videos became increasingly popular, singing seemed to be but one way of building bridges in the easy way she does. Her powerful voice — in singing, writing, and speaking up for injustice — , her keen listening skills, and her attention to making sure others were heard are but some of the ways Debbie has contributed so much to the Clinic and to our lives. The good news is she’ll be only a short train ride away. That, or a YouTube click.
May 18, 2018
Posted by Susan Farbstein
This post is tough to write: Cara Solomon, our Communications Manager, is leaving HRP. Having endured eight years in an office full of lawyers, she is following her passion to focus full-time on Everyday Boston, the nonprofit that she founded to build community across the city and break down stereotypes through storytelling. So we’re losing a dear colleague and friend. And we’re left to write this tribute without her invaluable editorial input.
It comes as no surprise that this is her next step. Cara, who joined us following a career as a print journalist, is a storyteller at heart. She loves nothing more than speaking with interesting people—asking insightful questions and digging deep to understand who they are and what drives them—and then turning that raw material into a beautifully reported piece. From articles about the bonds that form between clinical students, to profiles of clinical instructors and their work, to in-depth features on clinical projects and victories, Cara captures the story.
Her writing resonates not simply because she cares about the issues, but because she connects with people and puts them at the center of her work. During a break in the Mamani trial in March, I watched Cara sit outside the courtroom with Gonzalo Mamani Aguilar, one of the plaintiffs. Cara speaks no Spanish, and Gonzalo no English. Yet somehow they were deep in conversation—smiling, laughing, gesticulating, commiserating. This is just her way.
In addition to being a gifted storyteller, Cara has also proven herself to be a natural teacher. She taught us all to be better writers—how to find our voices, show rather than tell, shrug off the constraints of legal writing to speak to a broader audience—and then she tirelessly revised, edited, and reworked our pieces until they met her exacting standards.
She did this not only for those of us who work in the Clinic but also for our students, teaching clinical teams how to frame advocacy messages and talking points, to write blogs and op-eds, and to pitch ideas to journalists. In the classroom, Cara developed and taught modules on media advocacy and storytelling, dissecting op-eds and advocacy plans drafted by students and providing incisive feedback and suggestions.
Cara always called it like she saw it. Over the years, many students and staff turned to her as a listening ear to celebrate achievements, exchange frustrations, or seek advice. She looked out for them, checked in on people, reminded us all to take better care of ourselves. She had a keen eye for injustice and the need to break down hierarchies, including within the law school itself.
Thank you, Cara, for making us better writers, but more importantly for your kindness and friendship. We will miss you tremendously but know that your creativity, collaborative spirit, and curiosity will be put to good use at Everyday Boston. We’re excited to see the impact that you, and Everyday Boston, are already having on the community—and we wish you every success!
April 16, 2018
This piece by Bonnie Docherty, Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, originally ran in The Guardian, under the headline “We’re Running Out of Time to Stop Killer Robots”
It’s five years this month since the launch of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a global coalition of non-governmental groups calling for a ban on fully autonomous weapons. This month also marks the fifth time that countries have convened at the United Nations in Geneva to address the problems these weapons would pose if they were developed and put into use.
The countries meeting in Geneva this week are party to a major disarmament treaty called the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. While some diplomatic progress has been made under that treaty’s auspices since 2013, the pace needs to pick up dramatically. Countries that recognise the dangers of fully autonomous weapons cannot wait another five years if they are to prevent the weapons from becoming a reality.
Fully autonomous weapons, which would select and engage targets without meaningful human control, do not yet exist, but scientists have warned they soon could. Precursors have already been developed or deployed as autonomy has become increasingly common on the battlefield. Hi-tech military powers, including China, Israel, Russia, South Korea, the UK and the US, have invested heavily in the development of autonomous weapons. So far there is no specific international law to halt this trend.
Experts have sounded the alarm, emphasising that fully autonomous weapons raise a host of concerns. For many people, allowing machines that cannot appreciate the value of human life to make life-and-death decisions crosses a moral red line.
Legally, the so-called “killer robots” would lack human judgment, meaning that it would be very challenging to ensure that their decisions complied with international humanitarian and human rights law. For example, a robot could not be preprogrammed to assess the proportionality of using force in every situation, and it would find it difficult to judge accurately whether civilian harm outweighed military advantage in each particular instance.
Fully autonomous weapons also raise the question: who would be responsible for attacks that violate these laws if a human did not make the decision to fire on a specific target? In fact, it would be legally difficult and potentially unfair to hold anyone responsible for unforeseeable harm to civilians. Continue Reading…
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